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Having a proactive medical team may have saved her life.
Christina Applegate got her big break in 1987, playing the bitingly sarcastic daughter Kelly Bundy on the Fox sitcom Married… with Children. Unlike many of her teen actor contemporaries, she parlayed her early fame into a lifelong career in Hollywood, later landing starring roles in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, Samantha Who?, Up All Night, and Dead to Me. But in 2008, the actor’s world was turned upside down by a shocking revelation: At only 36 years old, she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. Read on to find out how her doctors nearly overlooked the cancer completely, and why she now views her diagnosis as a “strange blessing.”
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As the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, Applegate started getting mammograms at age 30—much earlier than guidelines suggest. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists different agencies’ recommendations, which vary widely. Women should consult with their healthcare providers to decide what is the right age for them to start being screened for breast cancer.)
Because Applegate’s breast tissue was especially dense, when she went for an exam in 2008 doctors found they couldn’t see much. They decided to follow up with an MRI, just in case a problem was obscured. “My doctor finally said, ‘You know, I can’t see. It’s too dense in there. We need to go deeper.’ And we did, and I had cancer,” the Bad Moms star told Elle in 2014.
Applegate notes that her doctor’s recommendation to get the follow-up MRI was based on a hunch—not standard cancer screening protocol. She describes herself as “lucky” to have a proactive medical team who probed the issue when her mammograms didn’t reveal anything significant.
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After her diagnosis, Applegate was tested for the BRCA gene mutation, and was found positive. This meant she had a far higher likelihood of developing breast cancer again after treatment, and had higher odds of developing ovarian cancer. She opted to have a double mastectomy, and in 2017, had her ovaries and fallopian tubes preventatively removed.
Applegate says the experience has made her more proactive about her own health, and that of her daughter, now 11 years old. “The chances that my daughter is BRCA positive are very high,” Applegate shared with Today in 2017. “I look at her and feed her the cleanest foods. I try to keep her stress levels down. I’m doing everything I can on my end knowing that in 20 years, she’ll have to start getting tested. Hopefully by then there will be advancements. It breaks my heart to think that’s a possibility,” she said.
While the prospect of her daughter testing positive for the BRCA mutation is daunting to the Dead to Me star, she says it’s an essential tool in early detection. She now advocates for better access to genetic testing, which she says is prohibitively expensive for those with inadequate health insurance. For some women, it can cost as much as $5,000 out of pocket, she says.
As a vehicle for her advocacy and fundraising, Applegate founded an organization called Right Action for Women (RAW) in 2009. The nonprofit provides financial assistance for MRIs and genetic testing, and works to educate women about their risk of developing breast cancer.
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While Applegate admits that her breast cancer came as a devastating shock, in 2014 she told Oprah Winfrey she views it as a kind of “blessing” in disguise. “You know, I talked to Melissa Etheridge… two days after I was diagnosed and the first thing she said to me was, ‘Christina this is a blessing that’s happened to you in your life, and right now you get to start over. Right now you get to change everything—the way you deal with things in life, the way you react to things.'”
Applegate is also grateful for the opportunity to advocate for others from a place of firsthand knowledge. “I am a 36-year-old person with breast cancer, and not that many people know that happens to women my age or women in their 20s,” the actor told Oprah then. “And so this is my opportunity to go out and fight as hard as I can for early detection—and that’s not mammograms, that’s MRIs that insurance doesn’t pay for and the gene testing that it doesn’t pay for. So it’s become this very strange blessing in my life.”
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